Can travel be fun again?

For many people, after more than a year of the pandemic, travel feels like something to dread. But it can still mean liberation, the author and psychologist argues. (Illustration: NYTimes)
For many people, after more than a year of the pandemic, travel feels like something to dread. But it can still mean liberation, the author and psychologist argues. (Illustration: NYTimes)
After 9/11, people wondered whether anyone would still travel. How could anyone take to the skies after such a hideous tragedy? For a while, it felt risky, though I was back on a plane even before carry-on items were allowed, for a flight to London that seemed to take a lifetime without even a book. Security amped up (really? my shoes? my belt?) and so did anxiety.اضافة اعلان

Yet international travel did not wither, but burgeoned. Many travelers grew accustomed to the risk, which felt on par with the health risks of fast food, the firetrap perils of living in tall buildings, or the risk of crossing urban streets against the light. New York remained an obvious target for terrorism, but it was not abandoned, and neither were the hubs at JFK and Newark.

Wary after a year of dealing with an airborne virus, many people are wondering when it will be possible to plan a week in Paris or the Caribbean without worrying whether the pandemic will overshadow the fun. Will a cruise ship ever again seem like a pleasure vessel rather than a deathtrap?

Most adult would-be travelers in the United States enjoy relative privilege and are gaining access to the vaccine, and while herd immunity remains elusive in the country at large, it is higher among more socioeconomically privileged populations, and therefore, perhaps, among flyers, the anti-vaxxers notwithstanding.

The cycle of modernization dictates that new dangers emerge in one area as new safety measures pop up in another: cars are faster, but they have seatbelts; more people visit the Grand Canyon, but there are guardrails where visitors congregate. Will we continue to wear masks at 5,000 feet? Given how many ordinary colds I contracted after flights in the old days, the idea of exposing myself to shared, recycled, compressed air has become distasteful as a matter more of general hygiene than of mortal terror, though most airlines are employing advanced filtration systems.

What will travelers find?

It’s comforting to be vaccinated and to go where everyone else is vaccinated, too; but there are ways to regulate trips to places where vaccines are less available and still stay safe while ensuring you don’t become a superspreader yourself. Travelers can avoid crowded settings, wear masks, and dine outside in places where the climate allows them to do so.

Tennyson’s Ulysses says, “I cannot rest from travel: I will drink/Life to the lees.” Many inveterate travelers share this brave impatience, the sense that the world is full of adventures and excitements begging for exploration. I have visited about half of the world’s nearly 200 countries, and my favorites are an odd assortment: England, because I live there part time: Mongolia, for its wild beauty and unbounded authenticity; Russia, for the streak of idealism that informs its intelligentsia even under the yoke of oppression; Afghanistan, for a quality of hospitality I have not encountered anywhere else; Namibia, because no other landscape is as arresting as the desert at Sossusvlei; Peru, for the food and history; Brazil, for its ecstatic parties and ineffable melancholy.

The list could go on and on; I have written about dancing with a friend under the full moon for the denizens of a highland village in the Solomon Islands; about getting stuck in the ice as I ventured to Antarctica; about the solemn tragedy of the people and the astonishing humanity of the gorillas in Rwanda; and about the most dangerous trip I ever took, which was to Australia, where I spent half a day floating in scuba gear after the boat that had taken me out into the Pacific motored away without me.
To imagine a world where such adventures are impossible is to imagine a world much less vibrant than the one where I’ve lived.

Reclaiming the skies

In early May, I took my first commercial flight since travel restrictions have eased, and my vaccination reached full potency, to visit my daughter in Texas. I didn’t feel wildly unsafe; it was psychologically uncomfortable, but I have always disliked airports and planes. I ate and drank nothing onboard, and my mask was tightly fixed on my face.

Even with the dread that may accompany it, travel is a liberation. The things and places and people I have loved and will love have been out there all this time, and I am no longer chained to New York with a leg iron.

In September, I intend to return to London for a friend’s 50th birthday and see my seven English godchildren. I’ve currently been away from Britain, where I have citizenship, for longer than I have at any time since I was 12.

Travel’s realms of possibilities

The question of travel is not merely a matter of fun. Travel is a necessary part of our continuing education. The 19th-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt wrote, “There is no worldview so dangerous as the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.” Much as the boundaries of our bubbles drove many of us slightly mad during quarantine, so being locked in our own country has been devastating for many of us. Every country’s success depends on the inquisitiveness of its citizens. If we lose that, we lose our moral compass.

Equally, much as I yearn to go elsewhere, I am eager to welcome people to these shores. It’s eerie to walk through the great New York City museums and not hear the din of 100 languages. Travel is a two-way street, and let us hope that it will soon be bumper to bumper in both directions.

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